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Two Governments That Remained Silent — and Three Women Who Refuse to Be Quiet

At a D.C. event, survivors of a Mexican drug cartel massacre, triggered by a botched DEA operation, tell their story.

“Whenever I land in places like Allende, places in Mexico that have lived under siege, I look first for women,” said ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson on Thursday. “I find that women, especially when it comes to the safety of their communities or their families, are less afraid of upsetting the powers that be. So if you can get a woman to open up and talk, they tend to do so with breathtaking openness and honesty.”

At an event co-hosted by ProPublica, Audible, National Geographic and the Washington Office on Latin America, Thompson took attendees behind the scenes of her reporting on an investigative oral history that unveiled the tragic story of a drug cartel’s deadly assault on the small Mexican town of Allende in 2011.

The story recounted how gunmen from the Zetas drug cartel – seeking vengeance against an alleged informant – swept through Allende, kidnapping and killing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men, women and children. Brushed aside as another ugly incident of cartel violence, the slaughter was barely a blip in the United States or Mexico. Through interviews from both sides of the border, however, Thompson revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and its botched operation had triggered the massacre in the first place.

Three survivors of the assault spoke with Thompson at Thursday’s event: Claudia Elena Sánchez, a psychologist, who lost her 15-year-old son Gerardo, in the massacre; Etelvina Rodríguez , a school teacher, who lost her husband, Everardo Elizondo; and María Eugenia Vela, a lawyer, who also lost her husband, Edgar Avila.

“In this story, we have two governments that have remained silent — and three women who refuse to be quiet,” Thompson said.

María Vela on how the Mexican authorities handled the case:

“The authorities at that time were totally apathetic. It was a loudly spoken secret that they had no intention of investigating, had no intention of helping. You can't file a complaint because they say that you had to say the names of the persons who had carried out the event. How could I say if I didn't know? I thought that it was sufficient for me to say my husband had disappeared, and there is no word of where he left, for them to investigate. I thought that would be enough, but no. They said if I filed a complaint, I was going to have problems because then they were going to come after me or they were going to bother me and go to my house and knock on my door. So, the authorities never took any interest in investigating, to this day.”

Claudia Elena Sánchez on returning to the ranch where her son Gerardo and others were killed:

“What we did is, I had many rosaries and prayer chains that we had taken, so we created a grave there. We had a cross, and I began throwing around rosaries. And the priest who came behind me; I began to do like that. And then we prayed for my son and for all of the human beings who they killed there.

It was a genocide, Ginger. You hear about Rwanda in 1994. At that time, I was getting married, and you can't imagine the situation, and now we had it right in front of us. It's not possible for people to take other persons' lives, to kill them and burn them. Where can there be so much cruelty? And then you're not given the body, the corpse of your loved one. What right do they think they have? The politicians, those in the government, they have no idea of the pain that it causes in your family, for them to destroy your family. Now, seven years later, I can tell you that I'm strong and that I have a passion to live, and I can tell you that, when I see my children, Gerardo is still with me. If I'm still here, it's because that angel continues to give me life from the day he was born, and they were not able to take us down.”

Etelvina Rodríguez on finding out that the United States played a role in the massacre:

“I think that it was irresponsible. They don't have any idea how they mutilated our families, our lives, the lives of our children and of society in general because a phenomenon was created in a particular case of Allende that was an extreme situation of abuse of violence, of indifference to what many of us have been going through. And all of this because of a bad decision by some persons, by bad processes that we have no idea about because we are people who are law‑abiding citizens. We work day to day, and we inculcate values in our children such as respect for others, for life, and that's what they did to us. We're not a bad community. We're not a region where this is anything normal. Nonetheless, we have suffered the consequences, and this has changed all of us.”

The event also previewed an excerpt from The Making of a Massacre, a five-part Audible original series developed from ProPublica’s reporting. The first episode is available for free on Audible now, and additional episodes will roll out later this year. Sign up for our email newsletter to get updates.

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